Kari Turkowski, one of four speakers at St. Cloud’s inaugural TEDx event in October 2017, will be the first to admit she never imagined herself being a public speaker when she was growing up in St. Cloud, let alone share her story on a stage, like TEDx, which holds national accreditation. But, back then, she wasn’t convinced she had a perspective worthy of sharing. That all changed when she became incredibly ill at the age of 27. This is a sliver of her story toward finding her voice and physical and mental strength through profound circumstances.
When I was diagnosed with a rare, genetic heart condition at the age of 27, my perspective on life and what others thought of me was flipped upside down. Almost overnight, all that mattered to me was healing and helping others living with an illness. I felt the full spectrum of emotions, but more than anything, my rapid shift in health status forced me to tap into my soul.
My condition pushed me to define, by my standards, what I wanted in life and what it meant to be happy. I was done wasting my days on things that didn’t bring me joy or engage my passion. This is when I set in motion my dream to speak to large audiences and travel the world educating people. At the time, I didn’t know how I was going to do this or what my message would be, I just put it on my “vision board” and let life runs its course.
When my heart condition progressed to stage II heart failure, I quit my accounting job, where I had worked hard in the hopes of becoming a partner, to go back to school at age 29 to pursue medical research. Today, I am starting my fourth year at Mayo Clinic pursuing a PhD in Biomedical Sciences with a focus in genetic heart diseases. The decade that’s passed since my initial diagnosis has truly felt like a crash course on life where I’ve learned to trust myself, my goals and my future.
As a former 3-sport athlete at St. Cloud State University and perpetual competitor, my heart condition changed my ability to play sports the way I once did, but it did not change my mindset of giving everything I could and never giving up. I would not let my condition be the end of what drives me.
With that in mind, I set out to pursue one of my loftiest goals yet: IRONMAN (2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, 26.2 mile run). This race was one the doctors did not think would be possible given my heart condition should’ve made climbing a flight of stairs difficult. I was determined to give it a try, work with my team of doctors and learn what my heart and drive could achieve.
Knowing I was embarking on something special, I teamed up with my brother Justin, a cinematographer, to create a documentary of my journey. Little did I know the documentary would be the key that would open a multitude of doors to motivational speaking opportunities, including TEDx St. Cloud.
Initially, I had a lot of self-doubt about applying to speak at TEDx St. Cloud because, in my opinion, my story was just about my choices and dreams, and how I chose to face adversity. I didn’t see it as “TEDx worthy” material, but submitted an application anyway. If anything, I considered it a healthy exercise to pursue speaking at an event of that caliber.
Just two months out from IRONMAN, I received an email from Sam Labine, Director of the TEDx St. Cloud, congratulating me on being one of four speakers selected to give a 15-minute talk at their inaugural event in downtown St. Cloud. I was ecstatic. To be able to share my story with the community where much of my life was shaped was an incredible feeling. But, I had to get through IRONMAN first.
Although I quickly assembled a small team (my mom & dad, Jen Odette, many college friends and colleagues) to help me prepare for TEDx, I knew my experience trying to complete an IRONMAN with a heart disease would greatly influence my message, so I chose to not finish writing my talk until the race was over, roughly one month before TEDx. I was happy I waited because the end of my race day turned out to be a moment that taught me more than crossing any finish line could have taught me at that point in my life. (Visit kariturkowski.com to see how my IRONMAN story ends)
With the race behind me, I moved full speed ahead preparing for TEDx St. Cloud. Up to this point my talks were conversational and unstructured, but I was gaining more confidence with each one. Luckily, the TEDx committee provided a speaking coach (if needed but I brought my own) and an amazingly talented individual who helped all the speakers with their presentations.
Soon enough October 12, 2017, rolled around, and when I arrived at the venue, the Paramount Theatre in downtown St. Cloud, I would not have guessed this was the first TEDx talk in our community, if I wouldn’t have known otherwise. From the location and stage set up to the production company, committee members, volunteers and fellow speakers to the guidance and support I’d received along the way, it was hands down an exceptionally professional event.
Because I was selected to be the last speaker of the night, I spent quality time in the green room. Two hours, to be exact. I think I drank about three bottles of water as I paced back and forth, mentally reciting every positive affirmation I knew. When I heard the emcee call my name, prompting me to walk out on stage, I made sure I took it all in because it was a moment I never wanted to forget.
As I began to speak, my story and confidence just took over, thanks to the countless hours I’d spent preparing. I felt calm, confident and relaxed. My message, which I’d named “Iron Heart”, was delivered just how I envisioned it. (Watch it here) Those quick 15 minutes, standing on a small circle under very bright spotlights, were the affirmation I need to continue down a road of motivational speaking.
I’m eternally grateful to have been a part of St. Cloud’s first TEDx event. It was truly amazing on all levels, and I hope everyone who was a part of it realizes their work was much appreciated. It’s events like these that not only help aspiring speakers like me reach their dreams, but they open everyone’s eyes to new possibilities.
TEDx St. Cloud returns to the Paramount Theater on Oct. 11, 2018. Click here for more information on this year’s speakers and ticketing.